Over dinner with a girlfriend in March 1994, Mike Steely decided it was time to fool some people. And finding the perfect name was the first step.
The Old Testament, then as now, always suggested an air of legitimacy. So Steely and the girlfriend threw around names like Ezekiel Genesis. And the Deuteronomy brothers, David and Donnie.
“But I decided even that would be too much,” Steely said.
Then he stumbled upon Zechariah Leviticus. The Amish running back.
Steely had a name, the imagination to concoct all kinds of compelling story lines and the platform to deliver the tale.
Steely, host of The Sport Animal's Morning Animals show, sprang Zechariah Leviticus on his listeners in March 1994, and Oklahoma football fans were more than ready to embrace the fable.
The Sooners were recruiting an Amish tailback from Pennsylvania who had built up his arms churning butter and building barns. An Amish Marcus Dupree. Bigger, stronger, faster.
Alas, Steely reported, there was no game film on Leviticus, since the Amish believed that captured video would capture your soul.
And Leviticus did not believe in modern transportation. But OU was so enamored, it had made arrangements for Leviticus to travel to close road games (Dallas, Stillwater) by horse and buggy.
“Are you kidding me?” radio callers would ask. “Did OU really bring in an Amish running back?”
On April 1, Steely came clean. Yes. He was kidding. Zechariah Leviticus was an April Fools' joke.
Old Zech wasn't the first. April Fools' long has been with us in the world of sports. Mostly because they work.
We are so quick to believe that which would be stunning, like the Packers moving to New York. Or that which would be outrageous, like the U.S. government declaring war on NASCAR.
Both were April Fools' jokes.
Most consider the greatest sports April Fools' joke to be the tale of Sidd Finch. Introduced in the April 1, 1985, edition of Sports Illustrated, Finch was the creation of George Plimpton's mind.
Plimpton reported that Finch, with a remarkable past, had suddenly emerged in the New York Mets spring training camp as the great pitching prospect of all times, able to throw 168 mph.
Never mind that if someone had shown up with the '85 Mets, firing 168 mph fastballs, the New York press would have reported it long before April, even in those pre-Internet days.
Much of America bought the story anyway.
A week later, Sports Illustrated reported that Finch had retired, preferring to pursue a career playing the French horn. A week after that, on April 15, SI said, gotcha.
But my favorite sports hoax comes long before Sidd Finch or Zechariah Leviticus.
In 1941, stockbroker Morris Newburger and radio man Bink Dannenbaum decided to see what they could get away with. Newburger always had scoured the college football scores, often wondering if some of these schools, like Slippery Rock, even existed.
So on a certain Saturday evening, Newburger called the New York papers, and Dannenbaum called the Philadelphia papers, both reporting a football score: Plainfield Teacher's College 12, Scott 0.
The score made all the papers, even though Plainfield Teacher's College did not have a football team, for the very valid reason that the school did not exist.
Emboldened, Newburger and Dannenbaum began adding details to their call-ins. Bigger and more lopsided scores, against similarly-fictitious opponents.
Plainfield sported a sophomore star named Johnny Chung, “The Celestial Comet.” Hawaiian by birth, Chung ate bowls of rice at halftime to renew his strength. Plainfield's coach was Hop-Along Hobelitz, who had fashioned a new “W” formation, in which the ends faced the backfield. There even was mention of a possible small-college bowl berth.
The ruse lasted six weeks and was done in by its own success.
A Philadelphia Record sportswriter by the name of Red Smith — yes, that Red Smith, who with The New York Times became America's most esteemed sportswriter — had heard enough of Johnny Chung's exploits that he figured he better go over to Plainfield and check them out.
Of course, Smith discovered that there was no Plainfield Teacher's College, much less an Hawaiian quarterback who ate rice for extra strength.
Newburger and Dannenbaum had to confess, though they did so tongue-in-cheek, with a press release saying Plainfield had to cancel the remainder of its season, after Chung and teammates flunked exams and were declared ineligible.
Noted New York Tribune columnist Franklin Pierce Adams took the joke in stride, even writing an ode to the ruse, lifted from Cornell's “Far Above Cayuga's Waters” anthem:
“Far above New Jersey's swamplands/Plainfield Teacher's spires!/Mark a phony, ghostly college/That got on the wires.”
Almost half a century later, Steely did the same on Oklahoma City airwaves. He actually had pulled one on some Oklahoma listeners even before Zechariah Leviticus.
In 1984, Steely invented Zeb McCracken, a barefoot, banjo-playing running back from West Virginia who was visiting OU. The Sooners eventually lost McCracken when he discovered the school didn't have banjo scholarships.
Most April Fools' can be laughed off. But some can get blood boiling.
A few years ago, when OSU's athletic director's job was open, Steely convinced Barry Switzer to come on the air and play along.
Switzer on air said he had agreed to become the Cowboy AD for $1 million a year salary. OSU asked only one thing of Switzer; he had to renounce all ties to the Sooners.
Switzer agreed to the joke because he figured nobody would believe it in the first place. How wrong he was.
This year, of course, we are safe from the likes of Zechariah Leviticus and Zeb McCracken, since April Fools' Day falls on Sunday, and Steely has the day off from radio.
But beware. You never know when an imagination will run wild, or when someone feels like being ornery, and suddenly Sidd Finch is throwing 168 mph fastballs and Plainfield Teacher's College has a football team.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.